I’ve just finished Scot McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet and have thoroughly enjoyed it, both as a challenge and an affirmation. His basic premise is that we all read the Bible with our own bias and preconceptions – and we should all be honest about that. Nothing new there really – except perhaps the call for honesty from all readers and interpreters.
The ‘blue parakeets’ of the title are those loud, squawking, irritating bits of scripture we prefer to gloss over or ignore – or, as McKnight puts it, tame and cage. They are the bits of scripture that don’t fit neatly into our own system, that challenge our preferred understanding and generally run the risk of putting holes in our favourite arguments.
The first half of the book sets out the various approaches typically taken by Bible readers and interpreters. It’s a necessarily condensed characterisation but the general thrust is that there are those (at least among those who still take scripture seriously) who stick with what the Bible says as valid for all time, those who read the Bible through the lens of their particular denominational or theological ‘creeds’ and those who seek to read scripture in a way that is sympathetic to their tradition but acknowledge the need for ‘contemporising’ their understanding. He offers further, narrower characterisations within, particularly, the first category – for example, those who read the Bible as a ‘rule book’ or those who see only a series of blessings or rewards.
It is into the last category (the contemporising one) I would place myself. And in particular, a preference for what might be described as a fairly post-modern approach. However, I don’t believe that that has to mean that the Bible can be interpreted in any way one chooses. I’ve written about this before and mentioned my appreciation for the literary approach of Stanley Fish and his ‘interpretive communities’. In essence, our interpretations of any literature will always be coloured and bounded by the community within which we find ourselves reading that work. In other words, our church upbringing is going to place the limits on our interpretation of the Bible – always allowing for a bit of pushing the boundaries of course.
Although McKnight doesn’t mention ‘interpretive communities’, that would be my understanding of what he is getting at. But the point McKnight makes takes it a stage further, into an area I hadn’t really appreciated but see as being a necessary and logical extension. Not only does our interpretive community provide the ‘boundary’ conditions, if we are honest in our intention of being part of that community, we must use that tradition actively in our engagement with scripture. But that active engagement is a two-way street. We must bring our faith tradition to bear on our Biblical interpretation, but also allow our reading of scripture to push the boundaries of that tradition. And the crucial thing is that that faith tradition is one which is also affected by and interacts with contemporary culture and society and cannot help but be shaped by it.
Sympathetic contemporising is done with regard to the faith tradition, but acknowledges its changing nature – changes that come about through its mission to remain relevant in a changing world. And the point that McKnight makes is that this ever-changing re-interpretation of God’s will is the story of the Bible. It is a book, or series of stories, which charts the continuing reinterpretation of God’s guidance and will in ever-changing circumstances. Of course there is the unchanging meta-narrative of creation, fall, exile, reconciliation but all else is contemporary re-interpretation.
The second half of the book uses the issue of women in ministry to show how some interpretations of scripture have failed to appreciate this changing interpretation and have made the Bible into a stagnant rule book. I won’t rehearse the arguments here, but I believe them to be fair.
But it leads me to the point I really wanted to make and the point which has struck me as I was reading the book.
If we accept that the Bible is the witness to a continuously-varying contextualisation and contemporising of God’s will (and I am persuaded that it is) then it places in interesting imperative on the church, its leadership and its theologians.
It seems to me that the purpose of the Bible then is not to be a source of blindly-applied rules, but rather a model for sacrilising the profane. In other words, in each and every age, we need to look at contemporary culture and work out where God is in that. The places we find God must then be celebrated, applauded and encouraged. And, of course, where we don’t find God, we seek to effect change.
But what are we looking for?
Once again I find myself in agreement with McKnight as he points out what God is ‘about’ – restoration to wholeness of individuals with themselves, with each other, with creation and, of course, with God.
And he makes one further challenging point – our model for wholeness is pre-fall (however we wish to read Genesis 1 & 2). Everything else up until Christ is a fallen model – so why are we using it? With Jesus, we are renewed, in a new community, enlivened and encouraged by the Spirit, who gifts us with discernment – discernment to see God at work in creation, in relationships, in communities. Again, why reduce that to following a set of rules from a fallen era?